Grief can surface over and over again in many different ways. One day, you may be feeling fine overall, then without warning, a grief trigger can cause you to suffer through an attack of fear and anxiety. These sudden emotions overwhelm and generate an extreme sense of panic in someone who's grieving a significant loss.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s a Grief Attack?
- What You Can Do When Experiencing a Grief Attack
- How You Can Prevent Grief Attacks
- How You Can Help Someone Through a Grief Attack
Grief and anxiety can come together to create what’s known as grief attacks. These attacks are most common in people who are struggling to cope with their grief. They can happen at any time, unanticipated. These uncontrollable physical and emotional outbursts are reminders that the mind is trying to process the reality of the loss. Grief attacks can happen even months or years after suffering the death of a loved one or other significant loss.
The following guide may help you or someone you love to learn to cope with these sudden and unexpected feelings of fear and extreme panic.
What’s a Grief Attack?
Grief-related anxiety attacks are a normal part of the grief process. They typically are more prone to happen following an unnatural or unexpected death, though they can happen with any loss. You can expect them to occur more frequently after a violent or accidental death.
An especially tragic loss is often excluded from consciousness for the first few days and weeks following the event. Memories then surface at the slightest trigger when you are no longer actively focused on your grief or in a passive mental state. Grief attacks are another form of an anxiety attack and can occur for years after the loss. They can and will decrease over time in severity and frequency.
What You Can Do When Experiencing a Grief Attack
Known triggers for grief attacks are memories or events that remind you of your loved one, such as birthdays and holidays. That can also include any day that marks a special occasion, such as a graduation or anniversary. Other triggers are certain smells, sounds, and feelings. Some of the more common grief attack triggers are hearing your loved one's voice on a recorded video, smelling their favorite cologne or perfume, or hearing the sound of children's laughter following the death of your child.
The best strategies for coping with these types of attacks are to regain control over your feelings and emotions. Grief attacks are part and parcel of coming to terms with the loss. It's essential to deal with your loss's pain instead of trying to minimize it or push it away. The following suggestions may help you prevent or reduce grief attacks as they happen.
1. Calm your fears
At the onset of a grief attack, talk down your fears and anxieties to help you push through it. You may feel like you’re having a heart attack, can’t breathe, or are otherwise dying. When experiencing these overwhelming grief reactions, remind yourself that it’s all a natural part of the grief process, and you’ll come out of it intact.
Having a bit of self-talk when no one else is around is of great help in calming yourself enough to minimize the effect of a grief attack. Remember that what you’re feeling is natural and that you’ll work your way through it. It can help to do a little bit of research on why we grieve.
2. Distract your mind
When in the middle of a grief attack, it’s hard to focus on anything else other than what you’re experiencing at the moment. Many people describe feeling as if they’re going to die, that they can’t breathe, and that they’re suffering a heart attack. Although all of these symptoms may feel real, they are likely the product of an overstimulated mind. These physical reactions are all controlled by the mind.
When you distract yourself from having these thoughts, you find yourself suddenly relaxing and easing out of the grief attack as quickly as it came on. One way you can distract your mind is to create a low level of pain somewhere else on your body. For example, an easy distraction method is placing a rubber band on the wrist and lightly pulling on it to create a snapping effect. The sensation will distract your mind from the grief attack long enough to recover from it.
3. Breathe deeply
Deep breathing can also help you regain control of your thoughts long enough to ease the symptoms of a grief attack. The physical symptoms are real and hard to ignore, especially when you start to feel your head spin with a lack of oxygen.
Take a deep breath in while you count to five or ten. Then slowly release that same breath to the count of five to ten. Evenly controlled breathing works to get oxygen flowing into your brain, while counting distracts your mind from the experience of the grief attack.
4. Go for a walk outdoors
Practicing self-care while you’re grieving is a way to fend off or minimize the effect of grief attacks. Taking a walk outdoors immediately at the onset of a grief attack may help you mitigate its effects. When the weather is freezing outside, the sudden change in temperature works to calm your fear and panic.
If the weather is not so drastic outside, take an ice cube and place it against your neck or wrist for the same calming effect you’d get from being outdoors in the cold. The relief is immediate and one of the best ways of getting out of a grief attack.
How You Can Prevent Grief Attacks
Grief and anxiety are inextricably linked. Debilitating anxiety that follows the death of a loved one is a shared grief occurrence. After suffering a significant loss, it's normal to feel vulnerable and anxious. Helping yourself through grief and loss and preventing grief attacks is part of learning how to cope with your grief. Anxiety is how the mind responds to fear.
Processing your grief-related fears and concerns is a way to minimize the effects of or prevent grief attacks from occurring altogether. The following ideas may help you learn how to prevent their frequency or from them from happening at all.
5. Address your fears
For many people, the death of someone they love creates fear and panic for many different reasons. Some people are forced to face their mortality for the first time, while others wonder how they'll manage their finances now that their life partner has died.
A great way to prevent grief attacks is to face your fears head-on. Take note of all the triggers and sit down to tackle them one by one. Get your financial affairs in order, have a plan for what you'll do in the event of a tragedy, and make a list of friends and family you can count on for support when needed.
6. Sit with your grief
Allow time to process your grief and emotions that come with experiencing a significant loss in your life. Sitting with your grief means checking in with yourself to see how you've been processing your grief, where you're at in your grief journey, and what needs to be addressed.
For example, perhaps you've been considering getting grief counseling or therapy. Taking the initial steps of locating a qualified professional to help you will take some of the fear away from not knowing who to turn to when most needed.
7. Talk about your loss
Find someone you know and trust to talk about your grief-related fears. This can be a good friend or relative who'll listen to you without judgment or giving you unsolicited advice. Preventing isolation in your grief is a major tenet of practicing grief work.
Talking about your loss is a therapeutic way of reducing the anxiety that causes you to experience grief-related panic attacks. Getting in the habit of sharing your experience with loss will help ease these attacks’ frequency and severity.
How You Can Help Someone Through a Grief Attack
Helping someone get through a grief attack doesn't have to be complicated or fear-inducing for you. Anyone can do it. You don't need to be a trained professional to talk someone through a grief attack effectively. You first have to prepare yourself for the emotional and sometimes irrational mindset of the person you're trying to help.
Understand that the fear they're facing is genuine for them. Try to validate what they're experiencing while talking to them about what they're going through. Here are some ways in which you can help talk someone out of a grief attack.
8. Guide them through it
Helping someone through a grief attack takes a little patience and creativity. Help them visualize a calmer state of mind by guiding their thoughts through an open field of flowers or snowy mountain terrain.
Consider visualizing anything that helps to get their mind off of their fear and panic. Let them explore with you and add to the visuals of what their mind sees. Together you can figuratively walk through to the other side of their panic and fear.
9. Talk to them
Explain to a person experiencing a grief attack the grieving process and how long grief lasts. The more you can fill their thoughts with facts and figures that make sense, the quicker you'll put their fears to rest.
Sometimes the mind needs to get through the fear of the unknown. Give as much factual information as possible. Be prepared to do all of the talking as their mind processes the information you are providing.
Overcoming Grief Attacks
Grief attacks are often the product of unresolved fear and anxiety. The more information a person has, the quicker they'll get through the fear and panic. Everyone processes grief differently. Some people may never once experience a grief attack, while others may have them frequently.
In time, these attacks will diminish and altogether disappear. That's the hope a grieving person has to look forward to when coping with their grief.